F1: Vettel takes a walk in the Park in Istanbul

For a while there, it looked as though we could have a truly wild and unpredictable and exciting F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Istanbul Park.

Unfortunately, that moment was on Friday morning, when Istanbul was strangely cold, grey, wet and windy – unseasonal conditions that caught out everyone, including championship leader Sebastian Vettel who managed to wreck his car in a nasty aquaplaning incident in the rain. Did this mean that we were in for an upset this weekend and a dramatic opening up of the race for the 2011 driver and team titles?

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner Pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

Sadly the answer turned out to be no. Sunday brought with it hot, sunny and dry conditions, and while the cars looked all the better for having the sun glinting off the bodywork, the excitement and unpredictability of the race was diminished by the absence of the bad weather.

Blessed with the clean side of the grid, Sebastian Vettel was able to get away from the starting grid without any problems, and thereafter sailed serenely around 58 laps always on course for victory and never having to deviate from Plan A. After the excitement of the earlier races thus far in 2011 where it seemed that the competition might just possibly be catching up with Red Bull, it was remarkable just how much in cruise control he was allowed to be here.

Behind Vettel at the start, Mark Webber was lumbered with the dirty side of the track and it was as tricky for him as it had been for others similarly handicapped in the support races like GP2: the wheels spinning on the dust and struggling to grip, he had no chance to stop Nico Rosberg flying through from third place on the other side, and had to settle for holding off Lewis Hamilton into the first turn.

Lewis Hamilton had managed to overcome the dirty side jinx and hold off Fernando Alonso for fourth; Alonso was left holding on to the outside line through turn 1, wheel to wheel with Jenson Button, but once through and into the right hand turn 2 the advantage shifted to the Ferrari and Button had to let him go, settling for retaining the sixth place from which he had started.

08.05.2011- Race, start

But Hamilton – who had seen one of his finest GP2 performances here, charging from the back of the grid in his pre-F1 days – then squandered his chance and pushed Webber too hard into turn 3, ending up running wide instead and having to brake, which allowed Alonso through to take the position. Worse, it also allowed Button through as well – and Button was in no mood to show him motorway etiquette and allow his team mate to blend in ahead of him, so instead Hamilton had to grit his teeth and settle for sixth in front of Michael Schumacher. He wasn’t happy with this state of affairs and immediately set about throwing everything he had at Button to get past.

Behind the squabbling McLarens, Vitaly Petrov decided to make a lunge on Schumacher down the inside into turn 12. It was a silly move – there was no chance he wasn’t going to outbrake himself and miss the apex – but the odd thing was that Schumacher himself apparently didn’t see it coming, and didn’t allow Petrov to have the accident. The Young Schumacher was far cleverer than this: but the Old Schumacher seemed oblivious, turned into the corner as normal, and a collision was inevitable. It wrecked Schuey’s front wing and he was obliged to pit a couple of corners later, putting him to the back of the field alongside Sergio Perez, who had already pitted for a damaged front wing at the end of the first lap. As for Petrov, the Renault ironically escaped any serious damage from the collision and carried on in eighth, Felipe Massa having slipped the Ferrari past them both to lay claim to seventh during the conflagration.

Any hope of avoiding a Red Bull lock-out now seemed to rest on Nico Rosberg in second; but once the Drag Reduction System (DRS) adjustable rear wings were enabled for use down the backstraight, it was just a matter of minutes before Webber lined up the Mercedes and blew past him into turn 12 on lap 5. Rosberg had nothing for him and looked like he was standing still, although he did try and counter attack through the final corners and down the main straight after Webber’s boosted speed made him struggle to to run off. But the Aussie did hold it together, Rosberg’s retaliation faltered, and the Red Bulls were one-two.

Next time through there, Lewis Hamilton had the DRS edge over Jenson Button and put it to good use: but Jenson fought back through the remaining corners and the two came out side-by-side onto the main straight, Jenson even pulling back in front before Hamilton then switched to the inside line and took turn 1 of lap 7 first and left Button with no right of reply – until the next time through, when the DRS show was on the other foot, and Button was able to snatch the position back with a very similar move, while just in front of the battling McLarens Alonso was also putting DRS to good use to dispatch Rosberg for third place.

Having tried, succeeded and failed to overtake his team mate, Hamilton went into a bit of a funk – most likely because he had shot his tyres with all those antics on the opening laps. He was falling off the back of Button and into the clutches of Massa behind him, and at the end of lap 9 Massa got the DRS upper hand and relegated Lewis down to seventh; but two corners later and both cars were in pit lane for new tyres, at which point Hamilton got the better stop and was away again before Massa and the two went side-by-side down pit lane until Massa finally had to concede the position as they exited pit lane and back on track in 12th and 13th places. Arguably Ferrari should have been penalised for an unsafe release from the pit box right into the McLaren’s path, but the officials seemed to take the view of “no harm, no foul” and that Massa had indeed yielded the place. Eventually.

Alonso and Rosberg were into the pits next time around, it was clear that several teams were facing their worse case tyre degradation and were having to switch from a three- to a costly four-stop strategy, which several teams euphemistically dubbed “Plan B” in their lightly coded radio communications to their drivers. Jenson Button was one of the last of the leaders to pit and duly briefly led the race on lap 12 and looked set for a three-stop strategy. Of course, whether McLaren’s Plan A was a patch on Red Bull’s was another matter entirely.

After more laps on degraded tyres once he did pit at the end of lap 13, he emerged in seventh behind Hamilton and Massa, a net loss of two positions. The driver that had made the extended first stint pay off perfectly for him was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who – having started from the back of the grid after qualifying problems – had muscled his way up to a staggering fifth place by the time he came in for his own pit stop at the same time as Button did, the Sauber emerging back in 13th.

08.05.2011- Race, Lewis Hamilton (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26 and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Rosberg meanwhile was still proving remarkably easy prey for his rivals, with Hamilton using DRS to pass him on lap 14. “We knew we had a little bit of vulnerability on high fuel,” explained team principal Ross Brawn later. “When we got into the race we started blistering the rear tyres which we hadn’t seen in practice [sessions,] so that’s why we fell away so quickly.” However the situation was improving as the fuel load lessened, and he was able to fend off the advances of Felipe Massa for several laps despite having the advantage of DRS, until the end of lap 21 saw Massa finally force his way past – and Jenson Button then dive through as well, putting the McLaren wheel to wheel through the final corners were Button somehow made the outside line off the final corner work as an overtaking point as Rosberg got loose on the apex. Two laps later and Massa locked up on the run down to turn 12 and flat-spotted his tyres, allowing Button through; Massa took to the pits for new rubber in the meantime.

Massa’s team mate Fernando Alonso had now clearly emerged as the biggest potential fly in Red Bull’s ointment, running just 2.5s off the back of Webber who in turn had closed up to within 3.3s of the leader, Sebastian Vettel. Everyone else was holding a busted flush: Hamilton, running in fourth behind Alonso, was 10s off the Ferrari and losing almost a second a lap to him, forcing him to come in for new tyres as early as lap 10 and confirming a four-stop strategy. Webber and Alonso were in for their stops shortly afterwards, but the surprise was that Vettel was able to pump in some fast laps – faster even than those on fresh rubber – and still remain out on track until lap 25 when he finally pitted for soft tyres, confirming him on a three-stop strategy and now over 8s clear of Webber and Alonso battling over second. Button was in two laps later from fourth, but a problem on the rear left wheel cost him a second and it put him out in traffic in seventh, just ahead of Rosberg and behind Massa.

Alonso managed to pass Webber at the midpoint of the race with the help of the DRS despite being far back on the run down into turn 12 at the end of the back straight, after which things finally calmed down a bit where the only major battle of interest on track were the repeated attempts by Button to overtake Massa for sixth, but getting continually frustrated by the Brazilian who was looking something back to his old form; Button finally managed to bring DRS to bear successfully at the end of lap 34 to took the position, at which point Massa dived into the pits anyway.

Already in the pits was Lewis Hamilton for his third stop of the afternoon; and it was not going well. A major problem with the front right wheel nuts lost him horrendous amounts of time and then – to add insult to injury – once the job was finally complete, the lollypop man had to hold him still longer because of Massa arriving at the pit stall right in front of them.

“It was a disappointing day on my behalf, I would say,” Hamilton conceded, dubbing it “Not one of my best races.” He admitted to damaging his tyres in his early battle with Jenson which forced an earlier-than-planned first pit stop; “and then at one of the stops we lost a lot of time … But in general I was already behind from turn 3.” Given all that, he maintained that “I felt that I recovered reasonably well considering how much time I lost throughout the race,” even though it meant he was never in with any shot at the win or even a podium position. “I just apologised to the guys – they worked as hard as they could. We were definitely able to do better today.”

Massa’s day was also slowing going downhill; a slow pit stop followed by a run-off into the marbles and off track at turn 8 when he rejoined left him in 14th before he went on to re-overtake Kobayashi under DRS into turn 12 – a move that was starting to look suspiciously easy and hum-drum after so many demonstrations this afternoon. Kobayashi himself had been compromised by slight contact with Sebastien Buemi which meant that he got a slow puncture and had to take his final pit stop early, resulting in an uncomfortably long 20-lap final stint. “Otherwise I think I could have finished seventh and scored more points,” he said, but ultimately had to settle for tenth place.

08.05.2011- Race, Nico Rosberg (GER), Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team, MGP W02, Felipe Massa (BRA), Scuderia Ferrari, F-150 Italia and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Vettel took what appeared to be final stop at the end of lap 40 and emerged some 7s ahead of Alonso in second, with Webber close behind him and then a huge gap back to Hamilton who still had another stop to make before the end. Rosburg was in fifth while Button had already come in for his final pit stop on the same lap as Vettel and was in sixth ahead of Petrov, Nick Heidfeld, Massa and Michael Schumacher who were all running very closely together on track.

Rosberg was in for his fourth and final stop at the end of lap 44; Webber was in next time around with a slightly slow stop, and Alonso, Hamilton and Massa all came in the next lap after that, and Massa got a poor stop as the rear right wheel was still revolving as Massa failed to properly engage the clutch, thwarting the crew’s efforts to mount a new tyre on it.

Alonso had been reacting to cover Webber’s own stop, and that forced Red Bull to take a safety-first approach and call in Vettel for a fourth stop after all at the end of lap 47. He had the gap over the opposition to do so, and it was better than risking leaving the leader out for another ten laps only to see the tyres fall apart and gift the win to Alonso. That left Jenson Button staying out as the only one of the front runners to try and make it on three stops only.

The strategy cards had been played – who would come out the winner? Webber immediately put out a statement of intent with a new fastest lap of the race straight away, and was charging down Alonso to take second and make it a one-two for Red Bull after all. Button was up to fourth ahead of Hamilton and Rosberg, but on considerably older rubber than they were and without anything like the cushion that Vettel would have enjoyed at the front.

Despite doing a everything he could to husband his tyres with his trademark smooth driving style, the task was beyond Button: on lap 50, he put up no fight as his team mate took the position in the DRS zone. More disappointingly, the car’s pace dropped off a cliff shortly after that and he was a sitting duck for Nico Rosberg to breeze past three laps before the end.

Button rued the decision to try and stretch the final set of tyres as long as they did – especially as they had alternatives, as he pointed out after the race. “We didn’t leave the tyres long enough,” Button suggested. “The tyres were still good at the end of every stint, but we came in … We should’ve stayed out for longer because it made the last stint just impossible, just too many laps.”

Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi could sympathise with Button: he had also tried the three-stop strategy and was running in seventh only to succumb to the attentions of both Renaults, Heidfeld and Petrov, in the closing four laps and end up in ninth just ahead of Kobayashi.

There was no tyre mismatch between Alonso and Webber, but you’d have been forgiven for thinking there was by the way Webber slashed his way through Alonso’s lead and closed right up to the back of the Ferrari. As the two cars came down into turn 12 on lap 51, the DRS kicked in and Webber was made to sweep around the outside line as Alonso did everything he could to make it difficult for him as they went side-by-side through the final turns. Alonso then fought back down the main straight, but Webber protected the inside line and stopped the Ferrari from diving through. A small mistake by Alonso through turn 5 then put him outside striking distance next time through the DRS danger zone, and after that Webber was away, job done. No worries, mate.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

That confirmed the podium as Vettel, Webber and Alonso, with Hamilton and Rosberg deserving their fourth and fifth places and Button sadly the victim of what had proved to be an unwise tyre strategy after all.

It had proved to be an interesting day for team mates: last year at Turkey produced that memorable and devastating crash between Vettel and Webber, and earlier in this year’s race we saw that hard but mercifully contact-free fight between Hamilton and Button; there was also the strange moment on lap 13 when Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov had come through the final corners side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel in what looked like a concerted effort to wreck both Renaults. Petrov pushed Heidfeld so wide that the German was nearly sent shooting into the pit lane entrance, and the two madly gesticulated at one another as they emerged onto the main straight.

“Yeah, that’s not nice. It shouldn’t happen,” Heidfeld said afterwards. “He just pushed me wide and we made contact. It’s not a safe thing to do.”

But the man having quite simply the worst time of it in Turkey this afternoon was Michael Schumacher. After that early encounter with Petrov that put him to the back of the grid, he found himself going wheel to wheel with the backmarker minnows and making heavy weather for it. Without a Benetton or a Ferrari underneath him, his ability to deal with traffic just seemed to have deserted him and he was overtaken by the likes of his former Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello, despite Rubens now being in the troubled and deeply unloved 2011 Williams, as well as by Kobayashi and Adrian Sutil making an opportunistic pass on the old master on lap 16, and later in the race Sebastien Buemi used DRS to perfection to breeze pass Schuey on lap 45, who no longer even seemed interesting in fending off such assaults.

He did have a nice moment on lap 54 when Felipe Massa passed him in turn 12, only for the old instincts to kick in again and allow Michael to perform a perfect switchback to re-pass Massa. Next time into turn 12 the two of them came up on the back of Jamie Alguersuari just to complicate things: the DRS feature went into passing the Toro Rosso, and then Massa and Schumacher battled down the start/finish straight. The Ferrari had the better straight-line speed and took the inside line into turn 1, forcing Schumacher out wide in a brutal move by Massa reminiscent of the ruthless moves of Schumacher himself at his best (or his worst, depending on your point of view.)

It was all rather dispiriting for the German, and Schumacher admitted for the first time after the race that he was no longer feeling happy with his day job: “Mostly I was able to go forward, but the big joy is not there right now,” he said, adding that the early clash with Petrov has sealed his entire day’s fortunes. “The race was a given from there, lots of fighting, lots of action, but for nothing. The golden helmet, that’s what we call it in Germany, that’s what I got and nothing else, so it’s a bit of a shame.”

For the first time it seems that the multiple world champion’s mask has cracked, and you have to wonder: is 2011 the year he will finally call it a day on his F1 career?

After the remarkable endurance achievement of all-but-one cars finishing the last race in China, Turkey nearly repeated the feat: only Timo Glock (who failed to even take to the starting grid because of a gearbox problem) and Paul di Resta (ordered to park his Force India on lap 45 on safety grounds shortly after a pit stop, after telemetry suggested a wheel was improperly attached) failed to make it to the end of the race. Williams’ Pastor Maldonado was given a pit lane speeding penalty, a drive-thru that saw him finish well off the lead lap in 17th.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

But reliability and lack of retirements aside, the biggest achievement of the race was just how far in front of the competition Red Bull now appear to be. Far from a return to Europe meaning the teams would bunch up again in terms of performance, it seems to have added just another growth spurt to Red Bull. At this race, the question of 2011 is not if Vettel and Red Bull will win the titles, but with how many races in hand they’ll achieve it.

Race result

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:30:17.558
 2. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     8.807
 3. Alonso       Ferrari              +    10.075
 4. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    40.232
 5. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    47.539
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    59.431
 7. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1:00.857
 8. Petrov       Renault              +  1:08.168
 9. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:09.300
10. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:18.000
11. Massa        Ferrari              +  1:19.800
12. Schumacher   Mercedes             +  1:25.400
13. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
15. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
16. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
17. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
18. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
19. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
20. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
22. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    5 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:29.703

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                  Lap
Di Resta  Force India-Mercedes  45
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth       1

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1. Vettel        93    1. Red Bull-Renault     148
 2. Hamilton      59    2. McLaren-Mercedes     105
 3. Webber        55    3. Ferrari               65
 4. Button        46    4. Renault               42
 5. Alonso        41    5. Mercedes              26
 6. Massa         24    6. Sauber-Ferrari         8
 7. Petrov        21    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     6
 8. Heidfeld      21    8. Force India-Mercedes   4
 9. Rosberg       20   
10. Kobayashi      8   
11. Buemi          6   
12. Schumacher     6   
13. Sutil          2   
14. Di Resta       2
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